Short Answer: Genesis creation texts belong to the mythical genre of the ANE, however they are not fictive constructs
In addition to James Shewey’s scholarly and detailed answer, I would like to add a few helpful points in the hope that it will demystify and simplify the beginning of Genesis and help biblical novices better understand its genre and the way the biblical authors themselves viewed those traditions when they set out to write them down.
The stories of Adam and Eve are clearly in the realm of myth, it’s a place where serpents talk and miraculous trees grow and cherubim and angels hover over its entrance. Additionally, they are extremely similar to ancient Sumerian texts like “Enki and Ninhursag” and the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh”, texts which are largely considered to belong to the mythical genre. But what is myth? In the modern world myth and fiction have become synonymous. When we hear ‘myth’ it immediately conjures images of fanciful demi-gods and legendary beasts and fire-breathing dragons that never existed. But is that really how the ancients saw myth? Most scholars are of the opinion that this is not the case.
Is myth ancient poetry?
Gordon Wenham in an important essay in the book “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters” describes the beginning of Genesis as protohistory. He refrains from categorizing it as myth, since, as he correctly points out, myth has become synonymous with fiction, which to his mind is wrong. Myth according to Wenham and others can be likened to poetry. Poetry can be true in the sense that it expresses timeless truths, but it is obviously not true in the literal sense. When I say “my love to you is like a red rose” I’m obviously not giving a literal and factual description of my love to you, rather it’s true in the abstract and ethical sense. Myths function similarly. A myth is a story that incarnates abstract truths in such a way that the participant experiences them at a level of beyond verbal expression. A story that incarnates great values and eternal truths operates as myth. Whether they are stories about the gods of Olympus, comic book heroes, Inuit maidens or Incan warriors, Hindu deities, trolls, or hobbits in holes is secondary. Huge numbers of stories exist from every human culture in every age which operate at a deeply subconscious level to communicate abstract truth in a mythic fashion. Some scholars indeed are tempted to explain the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the flood as simple poetry (or ancient myth as they would have it), they are intended to teach us lessons about the role of sin and repentance, God’s love for mankind, etc. They are expressed in mythic terms and language, and the author never intended these stories to be taken literally.
Why this doesn’t work for Genesis: Wenham and Hoffmeier
However, this view is too simplistic, since the text of Genesis clearly indicates that these occurrences were grounded in reality. As Hoffmeier points out in “Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters”, the place of Eden is given an exact geographical location in the bible, and its location is described in great detail (total of four verses!), linking it with famous landmarks like the Euphrates and Tigris. Similarly, Adam and Eve are clearly perceived as real human beings as the list in Gen. 3 strongly implies expanding on the name and years of his ten descendants (However, compare this with the last chapter of the Book of Job wherein the author gives a list of Job’s daughters, although it is widely assumed that it is a parable and that the story never took place). Additionally, the text purports to explain natural phenomenon like the pains of childbirth and the crawling of snakes and the existence of rainbows, it is very hard to reconcile this with the view that the story of Adam and Eve or Noah never occurred and that they are purely poetic and fictitious constructs. That is why Wenham believes that Genesis is protohistory which he likens to viewing an abstract painting; the picture is there but the details are fuzzy.
Criticism of Wenham’s view
However, Wenham is ambiguous when it comes to nailing down what he thinks is true history and what he thinks is fuzzy or in other words not real history. Another problem with Wenham’s theory is that he is forced to admit that at least some details of the Genesis narrative are not historically accurate and in other words fictitious, a stance which he is so desperately trying to avoid (see his criticism of Kenton Sparks’ view).
Interpretation of Myth: An alternative
My interpretation of myth is slightly different from Wenham’s, and contrary to Wenham I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis fit neatly the “mythical genre” of the ANE creation myths; yet at the same time I deny that the authors viewed the narrative or even some of the details to be fuzzy or fictitious. I think that the way the ancients defined myth was any occurrence that took place in the mythical or otherworldly realm: a dimension somewhat different from the earthly or the natural dimension. The mythical realm is not entirely removed from our daily realm, it is grounded on the earthly realm and it continually interacts with it. We can look at it as another dimension of reality, or viewing the same world with a mythical lense, so to speak. Some scholars even call this mythical realm a proto-world. In the mythical realm things are not bound to the scientific laws and constants, in that realm serpents can talk effortlessly and man has no need to till the fields, they can converse with the archangels and even copulate with them.
If we subscribe to this view then most of the problems that rise from the genesis creation accounts are easily resolved. Eden indeed has an exact geographical location and is completely grounded in the earthly realm, so too Adam and Eve are our true ancestors who have walked the face of the earth, yet at the same time the stories of Adam and Eve and their conversation with the serpent need not be historically true as they are not assumed by the biblical authors to have occurred in the earthly dimension but in the mythical dimension. In the mythical realm man has sinned and that’s why god has cursed him with mortality, and the woman with childbirth, and the serpent with crawling on his belly. Although mammals and homo sapiens have always been mortal, and females from time immemorial have suffered from childbirth, and serpents have been crawling on their bellies since they have evolved in their current form, in the mythical mind they are attributed to their sinful acts (which is true in that sense and just as important to the biblical authors as historical facts) which to the biblical authors have truly occurred in real time, albeit not in the natural world as we know it (thus I somewhat agree with Wenham’s view that these narratives should be categorized as protohistory, although for a different reason). The mythical realm is the behind-the-scenes explanation for the phenomenon that we observe in the natural world; of course they are not scientific explanations and neither do they purport to be, the narratives are there to explain the theological significance of these natural occurrences and the divine plan that set it in place.
Serpent vs. Balaam's Donkey
This explains why the biblical authors didn’t feel the need to add a note when the serpent suddenely starts speaking to Eve (beginning of Gen. 3) as it does in Numbers 22:28
Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam
Compare this to Genesis 3 wherein no explanation is added; the serpent just talks, without any divine intervention! This always struck me as really odd. But according to our new theory this anomaly is resolved. Indeed, In the earthly realm where things operate under scientific laws a donkey can’t speak without divine intervention, that’s why an explanation is needed, but in the mythical realm where this whole narrative is set to have occurred there is no need to explain how a serpent can talk; this would have been obvious to the biblical audience reading this narrative, two and-a-half thousand years ago, which so neatly fits the mythical genre of the ANE, and no explanations were necessary.
It’s not clear exactly where Genesis transitions back to the earthly realm and the narratives become real historical accounts. It can be argued that Noah and the flood are already set back in the earthly realm, since there are no clear indications that were dealing with myth here. However, given the similarities between the Noah account and the "Epic of Gilgamesh" and other Sumerian and Mesopotamian texts, it is reasonable to say that this too should be understood to have taken place in the mythical realm and is still not real history. That coupled with the fact that the lifespan of Noah and his descendants are extremely out of proportion and unnaturally long, a clear indicator that were not dealing yet with the earthly realm (the meaning of these lifespans and number of years merit a discussion on their own). However, beginning with chapter 12 where the text recounts Abram’s wanderings it is widely assumed that were already dealing with real history, although his lifespan is not yet back where it should be for earthlings.